Collections: No Man’s Land, Part I: The Trench Stalemate

This week (and next) I want to build a bit off of our discussion of Victoria II and talk a bit about World War I and in particular the trench stalemate on the Western Front. That trench stalemate is, in many countries, synonymous with the war itself. Of course the war was much larger than that and while trenches, machine guns and artillery appeared everywhere in the war, not all fronts devolved into the static trench warfare of the Western front. The Eastern front, for instance, was always too large for this (though trench systems developed in areas of frequent fighting), while battles in Mesopotamia and the Levant always had the desert as a vast, open (but also logistically challenging) flank. Nevertheless, the experience of the Western Front was extremely important; the disaster of the First World War both broke and made nations. Yet precisely because it was so formative, World War I, its generals, tactics and battles are often shrouded in national myths and unquestioned assumptions.

What I want to focus on here is the disconnect between the popular conception of how trench warfare actually worked and the actual conditions that produced trench warfare. This week, we’re going to look at the problem: both the popular perception of what the problem is and what the actual problem of trench warfare is. This is both to set the groundwork for the next post, which will discuss the ways that this stalemate was and wasn’t broken, but it also serves to handily dismiss some of the ‘easy’ solutions that are often offered which don’t solve the actual problem but merely solve the imaginary one.

One thing I should note I am not going to do here is discuss specific battles or specific generals. If you are expecting a all-round defense of WWI generalship you will not find it here; while there has been a tendency of historians to revisit (fairly, I think) the tarnished reputations of many of the commanders of WWI, I think it is also broadly indisputable that the First World War saw more than its share of stunning command incompetence (for what it is worth, I generally consider Luigi Cadorna, Italian chief of Staff 1914-1917, to have been the worst general I know of. I may run a B-side addendum to these posts on why I think Cadorna deserves this unique dishonor, especially given how stiff the competition in WWI is for terrible generalship.). On the other hand, as will soon become apparent, I think that, quite to the contrary of the popular perception that this or that easy solution was available, many WWI generals were presented by what was a fundamentally unsolvable problem, at least unsolvable with the technologies and armies they had to work with. Nevertheless even within an unsolvable problem one may discern different degrees of quality, in part in the speed with which someone realizes that the problem is unsolvable and adjusts accordingly. Some generals did this, some did not.

Naturally though, we need a jumping off point for the popular perception of trench warfare and if you’ve paid any attention to the thumbnail you already know what it is: the iconic No Man’s Land scene from Wonder Woman (2017).

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(Bibliography note: There are any number of books on the First World War and the Western Front. I have relied here particularly on Robert A. Doughty’s Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War (2005). For more general reading, consider M.S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global History (2005) and W. Philpott, War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War (2014). For an overview of the technological and social factors that led to this point, delivered in an accessible for-the-layman-manner, see W.E. Lee, Waging War (2016), chapters 9-11. For a campaign history of the war, my own favorite is the now rather aged J.L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I (1981), for the dry, sardonic prose as much as for the quite capable narrative of the war.)

That No Man’s Land Scene

A quick walkthrough of what I think are the key points in the scene here. We start in what is apparently a front-line trench position somewhere in Flanders (although, as we’ll see, it is surprisingly densely held and also both surprisingly dry and overbuilt but also lacks any machine-gun positions). It’s held by British troops. After a shell goes off (which no one reacts much to), Steve Trevor explains to Wonder Woman that “this is no man’s land” (which is not true, they’re in a trench which is, definitionally, not no man’s land), “…means no man can cross it” (which is also not correct, by the by. No man’s land was called that because no one held it and so it belonged to no man). Trevor then declares that “this battalion has been here nearly a year and they’ve barely gained an inch” which initially seems an odd statement since this is supposed to be late in the war. But if we squint really hard it could make sense if we assume this is a position abandoned by the Germans in the pullback to the Hindenburg Line in February of 1917. The film takes place is 1918, so the dates almost add up. Though that’d be an odd thing, “we only gained an inch, except for that one time barely out of the time horizon I am offered where we gained several miles in a day because the enemy didn’t fight for them” is a strange way to present a stalemate. Alternately, he is just meaning that this battalion has been here for that long, the previous battalion which was also here having been rotated out which would be an odd point to make.

Also, if I may just stop here for a moment, but Hollywood writers, please. Please. Go to your computer, go to Wikipedia, and look up the sizes of various military units. A British battalion in WWI was notionally 1,000 men, though by 1918, they’re all going to be under-strength to one degree or another. These aren’t independent maneuvering units; battalions do not launch major independent attacks but rather are components of attacks generally launched at the divisional level. Steve Trevor has just patiently explained to Wonder Woman that his car seat has been stuck in that parking space for almost a year; yes it has, because it is attached to the car. It is the car that hasn’t moved! The word you were looking for here was ‘brigade’ or more likely ‘division.’ This is a seemingly perennial problem in movies that have no sense of how large particular units are or what sort of tasks are appropriate for what unit size (though screenwriters do love battalions; I assume because it has that word ‘battle’ in it).

Steve Trevor then explains that this lack of movement is because there are “a bunch of Germans pointing machine guns at every square inch of this place.” Wonder Woman then decides to charge over no man’s land, which is a flat expanse of blasted ground. Because she is basically immune to bullets, she absorbs the machine gun fire (and deflects a mortar with her shield; how this solves the fragmentation issue is beyond me). Because the machine-gunners are distracted, the British troops can swarm up out of their trench and charge and seize the opposing position. This in turn causes a break in the front which allows our heroes to slip through the German lines and continue their mission.

This shot is so good. But a solid representation of warfare in World War I it is not.

Apart from its story utility (and don’t get me wrong, as a scene in a story this bit is fantastic; it’s easily the defining scene for the character in the film and honestly the franchise), the scene serves to drive home some of the basics of the popular conception of trench warfare in WWI, namely:

  1. The primary obstacle to a successful assault was crossing no man’s land.
  2. The primary obstacle to that was machine-gun fire, such that ‘drawing all of the fire’ would be sufficient to enable an attack.
  3. Reaching and clearly the immediate enemy trench line was sufficient to break a sector’s defense (but attacks cannot accomplish this because of (1) and (2))
  4. Consequently, attacks always fail because attackers are mowed down by machine-gun fire before ever reaching the enemy line; defenders take negligible casualties.

As premises, those conceptions lead to a nearly inevitable conclusion, typically phrased by my students as, ‘why don’t you just go on the defensive and let your opponent attack himself to exhaustion?’ The popular culture history has an answer to that question, of course, and it is that all of the generals in World War I were some mix of idiots or detached, aristocratic psychopaths utterly uncaring about their men.

And every part of that, from the premises to the conclusion is some degree of wrong; some of the premises are straight up wrong, others are deceptive half truths and all of the rest of it collapses from the broken foundation. Many World War I generals were incompetent and some were uncaring, but there were also a lot of quite capable, focused and dedicated commanders and they couldn’t break the trench stalemate either.

Wonder Woman couldn’t have done it either. But to understand why, we need to understand what creates the trench stalemate, because machine guns aren’t enough.

What Looks To Be The Problem

The trench stalemate is the result of a fairly complicated interaction of weapons which created a novel tactical problem. The key technologies are machine guns, barbed wire and artillery (though as we’ll see, artillery almost ought to be listed here multiple times: the problems are artillery, machine guns, trenches, artillery, barbed wire, artillery, and artillery), but their interaction is not quite straight-forward. The best way to understand the problem is to walk through an idealized, ‘platonic form’ of an attack over no man’s land and the problems it presents.

(I should note that this is not a development history. I am not walking through these innovations in the order that they are deployed, just in the order that makes sense. If you want a development history, see the bibliography above; in practice many of these problems were at least partly anticipated or otherwise realized quite quickly, so almost all of the main components here at least began appearing together fairly quickly in 1914)

Via Wikimedia, a ‘French 75’ light field gun; the formal name for this fast-firing and deadly light artillery piece was the Matériel de 75mm Mle 1897. Brutally effective in its role, the gun suffered from the fact that trench warfare increasingly prioritized heavy artillery over light, fast moving field guns like this one.

So, the first problem: artillery. Neither side starts the war in trenches. Rather the war starts with large armies, consisting mostly of infantry with rifles, backed up by smaller amounts of cavalry for scouting duties (who typically fight dismounted because this is 1914, not 1814) and substantial amounts of artillery, mostly smaller caliber direct-fire1 guns, maneuvering in the open, trying to do fancy thinks like flanking and enveloping attacks to win by movement rather than by brute attrition (though it is worth noting that this war of maneuver is also the period of the highest casualties on a per-day basis). The tremendous lethality of those weapons – both rifles that are accurate for hundreds of yards, machine guns that can deny entire areas of the battlefield to infantry and the artillery, which is utterly murderous against any infantry it can see and by far the most lethal part of the equation – all of that demands trenches. Trenches shield the infantry from all of that firepower. So you end up with parallel trenches, typically a few hundred yards apart as the armies settle in to defenses and maneuver breaks down (because the armies are large enough to occupy the entire front from the Alps to the Sea).

The new problem this creates, from the perspective of the defender, is how to defend these trenches. If enemies actually get close to them, they are very vulnerable because the soldier at the top of the trench has a huge advantage against enemies in the trench: he can fire down more easily, can throw grenades down very easily and also has an enormous mechanical advantage if the fight comes to bayonets and trench-knives, which it might. If you end up fighting at the lip of your trench against massed enemy infantry, you have almost certainly already lost. The defensive solution here, of course, are those machine guns which can deploy enough fire to prohibit enemies moving over no man’s land: put a bunch of those in strong-points in your trench line and you can prevent enemy infantry from reaching you.

Now the attacker has the problem: how to prevent the machine guns from making approach impossible. The popular conception here is that WWI generals didn’t ‘figure out’ machine guns for a long time; that’s not quite true. By the end of 1914, most everyone seems to have recognized that attacking into machine guns without some way of shutting them down was futile. But generals who had done their studies already had the ready solution: the way to beat infantry defenses was with artillery and had been for centuries. Light, smaller, direct-fire guns wouldn’t work,2 but heavy, indirect-fire howitzers could! Now landing a shell directly in a trench was hard and trenches were already being zig-zagged to prevent shell fragments flying down the whole line anyway, so actually annihilating the defenses wasn’t quite in the cards (though heavy shells designed to penetrate the ground with large high-explosive payloads could heavy a hundred meters of trench along with all of their inhabitants up into the air at a stretch with predictably fatal results). But anyone fool enough to be standing out during a barrage would be killed, so your artillery could force enemy gunners to hide in deep dugouts designed to resist artillery. Machine gunners hiding in deep dugouts can’t fire their machine guns at your approaching infantry.

And now we have the ‘race to the parapet.’ The attacker opens with a barrage, which has two purposes: silence enemy artillery (which could utterly ruin the attack if it isn’t knocked out) and second to disable the machine guns: knock out some directly, force the crews of the rest to flee underground. But attacking infantry can’t occupy a position its own artillery is shelling, so there is some gap between when the shells stop and when the attack arrives. In that gap, the defender is going to rush to set up their machine guns while the attacker rushes to get to the lip of the trench:first one to get into position is going to inflict a terrible slaughter on the other.

Via Wikimedia, WWI era barbed wire emplacements. Note just how much wire is being used here.

Now the defender begins to look for ways to slant the race to his advantage. One option is better dugouts and indeed there is fairly rapid development in sophistication here, with artillery-resistant shelters dug many meters underground, often reinforced with lots of concrete. Artillery which could have torn apart the long-prepared expensive fortresses of a few decades earlier struggle to actually kill all of the infantry in such positions (though they can bury them alive and men hiding in a dugout are, of course, not at the parapet ready to fire). The other option was to slow the enemy advance and here came barbed wire. One misconception to clear up here: the barbed wire here is not like you would see on a fence (like an animal pen, or as an anti-climb device at the top of a chain link fence), it is not a single wire or a set of parallel wires. Rather it is set out in giant coils, like massive hay-bales of barbed wire, or else strung in large numbers of interwoven strands held up with wooden or metal posts. And there isn’t merely one line of it, but multiple lines deep. If the attacker goes in with no preparation, the result will be sadly predictable even without machine guns: troops will get stuck at the wire (or worse yet, on the wire) and then get shot to pieces. But even if troops have wire-cutters, cutting the wire and clearing passages through it will still slow them down…and this is a race.

Also via Wikimedia, another example of the ways in which barbed wire might be deployed.

So far we haven’t strayed very far from the popular conception of how this all works. It’s a bit more complicated, to be sure but we’re still looking at a system of ‘prohibitive defense’ where it seems just foolish to attack at all because so many advantages are on the side of the defender. Which means it is now time for:

The Actual Problem

Because the generals on the attacking side – and it is worth remembering that Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France and Italy all took their turns being the attacker on the narrower Western and Italian fronts defined by continuous unbroken trench-lines (the Eastern Front was somewhat more open) – were actively looking for ways out of the trench stalemate. We’ve already discussed one effort to get out, poison gas, and why it didn’t succeed. But there was a more immediate solution: after all, every field manual said the solution to weakening infantry positions on the field was artillery. Sure, trenches and dugouts made infantry resistant to artillery, but they didn’t make them immune to it. So what if we used more artillery?

So by the Second Battle of Artois (May, 1915), the barrage was four days long and included 293 heavy guns and 1,075 lighter pieces. At Verdun (February, 1916) the Germans brought in 1,201 guns, mostly heavy indirect fire artillery (of which the Germans had more than the French) with a shifting barrage that expected to fire 2 million shells in the first six days and 4 million during the first 18 days. At the Somme (1916) the British barrage lasted from the 24th of June to the attack on July 1 (so a seven-day barrage); a shorter barrage was proposed but could not be managed because the British didn’t have enough guns to throw enough shells in the shorter time frame. A longer barrage was also out: the British didn’t have the shells for it. By Passchendaele (1917) the British were deploying some 3,000 artillery pieces; one for every 15 yards of frontage they were attacking.

These efforts didn’t merely get to be more, but also more complex. It was recognized that if the infantry could start their advance while the shells were still falling, that would give them an advantage in the race to the parapet. The solution was the ‘creeping’ barrage which slowly lifted, moving further towards the enemy’s rear. These could be run by carefully planned time-table (but disaster might strike if the infantry moved too slow or the barrage lifted too early) or, if you could guarantee observation by aircraft, be lifted based on your own movements (in as much as your aircraft pilots, with their MK1 eyeballs, could tell what was happening below them). If you think this was all very simple, here is the army barrage map for the Battle of Passchendaele, with the various timed lifting barrage lines:
Via Wikipedia, the British Army Barrage Map for the Battle of Passchendaele (1917).

I find that most casual students of military history assume that these barrages generally failed. I suspect this has a lot to do with how certain attacks with ineffective barrages (e.g. the Somme generally, the ANZAC Corps’ attack at Passchendaele) have ended up as emblematic of the entire war (and in some cases, nationality-defining events) in the English-language discussion. And absolutely, sometimes the barrages just failed and attacks were stopped cold with terrible losses. But rather more frequently, the barrages worked: they inflicted tremendous casualties on defenders and allowed the attackers to win the race to the parapet which in turn meant the remaining defenders were likely to be swiftly grenaded or bayoneted. This is part of why WWI commanders continued to believe that they were ‘on the verge of a breakthrough,’ that each attack had come so close, because initially there were often promising gains. They were wrong, of course, about being that close, but opening attacks regularly overran the initial enemy positions. Even the worst debacles of the war, like at the Somme, generally did so.

And at this point, you may be wondering if you’d been lied to, because you were always told this was a war where advances where measured in feet and meters instead of miles or kilometers and how can that be if initial attacks generally did, in fact, overrun the forward enemy positions? I’ll push this even further – typically, in the initial phases of these battles (the first few days) the casualty rates between attacker and defender were close to even, or favored the attacker. This is of course connected to the fact that the leading cause of battle deaths in the war was not rifle fire, machine guns, grenades, bayonets but in fact artillery fire and the attacker was the one blasting fixed positions with literal tons of artillery fire. So what is going on?

Via Wikipedia, an aerial view of trenchlines around Loos and Hulluch in 1917, showing the forward positions along with the communications trenches leading back to secondary and tertiary positions to the rear. The more heavily developed position on the right is German; being more frequently the defenders, the Germans tended to develop their trench defenses more extensively.

Because both sides quickly figured out that their forward positions were badly exposed to artillery barrages and began designing defenses in depth, with rear positions well out of the reach of all but the largest enemy artillery. For instance, most of the so-called ‘Hindenburg Line’ (the Germans called it the Siegfriedstellung or ‘Siegfiend Position’) was set in multiple lines (the Great War youtube channel actually made a neat diagram of the doctrine position setup for the line as a poster; I have it in poster format – a gift from my better half – but it is obviously copyright so I won’t duplicate it here. You can buy it here). The plan consisted of a thin initially defense which was assumed to fall in the event of an attack, but still featured channels made by heavy barbed wire and machine guns designed to inflict maximum casualties on an advancing force (and be dangerous enough to require the artillery barrage and planned assault). Then behind that was more open ground and then a second line of trenches, this time much more solid, with communications trenches cutting vertically and the battle positions horizontally, enabling reserves to be brought up through those trenches without being exposed to fire. Finally the reserves themselves were in a third line of trenches even further back, well outside of the enemy’s barrage (or indeed the range of all but their heaviest guns). Of course while your artillery is in the back, out of range of the enemy artillery, the enemy infantry is attacking into your artillery range. This keeps your artillery from being disabled into the initial barrage (you hope) so that it can be brought into action for the counter-attack.

And now the enemy of the attacker is friction (as we’ve discussed before with defense in depth). If everything possible goes right, you open with the barrage, your infantry sweeps forward, the creeping barrage lifts and you win the race to the parapet. The forward enemy defenders are either blasted apart by the barrage or butchered in their holes by your gas, grenades and bayonets. Great! Now you need to then attack again out of those enemy positions to get to the next line, but you forces are disorganized and disoriented, your troops are tired and your supplies, reinforcements and artillery (including many heavy guns that weigh many tons and shoot shells that also weigh 100+lbs a pop) have to get to you through the terrain the barrage created, which to be clear looks like this:

Via Wikipedia, no man’s land in Belgium, 1919.

So rapidly the power of your initial attack runs out. And then the counter-attacks, as inevitable as the rising sun, start. Your opponents can shell you from nice, prepared positions, while your artillery now has to move forward to support you. Their troops can ride railways to staging posts close to the front lines, advance through well-maintained communications trenches directly to you, while your troops have to advance over open group, under artillery fire, in order to support you. The brutal calculus begins to take its toll, you lose ground and the casualty ratios swings in favor of the ‘defender’ (who to be clear, is now attacking positions he once held). Eventually your footholds are lost and both sides end up more or less where they started, minus a few hundreds of thousands of dead. This – not the popular image – this is the stalemate: the attacker frequently wins tactically, but operational conditions make it impossible to make victory stick.

The brutal irony of this ‘defensive’ stalemate is that at any given moment in a battle that might last months and swing from offensive to defensive and back again that casualties typically favored the side which was attacking at any given moment. More ironic yet, the problem here is that the artillery itself is digging the hole you cannot climb out of, because it is the barrage that tears up the landscape, obliterating roads, making movement and communication nearly impossible for the attacker (but not for the defender). But without the barrage, there’s no way to suppress enemy artillery and machine guns to make it possible to cross no man’s land. Even with tanks, an attack without supporting artillery is suicide; enemy artillery will calmly knock out your tanks (which are quite slow; this is in 1918, not 1939).

The problem, for the attacker and the defender isn’t machine guns, it is artillery: the artillery that makes assaults possible in the first place makes actual victory – breaking through the enemy and restoring maneuver – impossible.

The Failure of Easy Answers

So what ought to happen when Wonder Woman storms the German trench lines? Given that she has super-powers and is effectively immune to bullets, I suppose she might reach the German lines and badly disrupt them. Recall that, by this point in the war, German doctrine (indeed, everyone’s doctrine if they had any sense) called for the front lines to be thinly manned. The excited rush of the regular troops behind her would be a bit slower though: unable to manage Wonder Woman’s smooth 50-foot vertical jump, they’ll have to deal with the barbed wire (mysteriously absent in the scene), moving forward slowly, with wire cutters. It is probably at around this point that, without supporting artillery fires to knock out enemy guns, that the actual artillery will get into the fight. The scene has a single German light infantry mortar, but Wonder Woman is probably going to need initially to stop direct fire from German field guns (in particular the 7.7cm Feldkanone 16, or 10.5cm Feldhaubitze either 98/09 or 16). Knocking them out of the way with her shield isn’t going to work: the shells are going to come in as high explosive fragmentation or bursting shrapnel shells, fused to explode above the ground and rain down small lethal metal fragments.

Again, Wonder Woman is probably fine, but Steve Trevor and their British infantry support is likely to have a hard time catching up to her. Once they do take the opposing forward trench, they’ll need to get ready for the inevitable counter-attacks. The German army in particular was noted for the consistency and ferocity with which its counter-attacks came. But without preparation, there is functionally zero chance that the British artillery was ready to move up to support this new position, so Wonder Woman’s supporting infantry is going to be in a lot of trouble, likely blasted by whatever heavy artillery is available in the sector before being violently shoved out of position by something a lot bigger than just an infantry battalion. Even if they manage to hold against the counter-attack, Wonder Woman now has to do this routine twice more in order to get through the lines and by now, while she and her comrades are moving over mud-soaked blasted wasteland, the German reserves are moving along train tracks and the undamaged roads behind their lines. That village she wanted to save would, of course, almost certainly cease to exist as both sides began shelling the area in support of their attacks or defenses.

Via Wikipedia, aerial photography of the Belgian village of Passchendaele (or Passendale) from before the war and after it. You can make out the remains of the road lines and the shattered husk of the village’s stone church; the small pock-marks are all shell holes.

A great many casualties later, Wonder Woman might have considered it wiser to have made the crossing at the stealthier place alluded to in the dialogue.

(Two notes for the ultra-pedants here. First, it’s not clear how late in 1918 this movie is supposed to be set. If these events are taking place in, say, October or November of 1918, Wonder Woman’s attack might not be greeted by machine gun fire at all if she’s lucky, but by exhausted, under-fed and demoralized German soldiers looking to surrender or simply abandoning their positions. German morale in late 1918 was awful, in part because their partly successful offensives in the Spring had exposed some of the lies of their own high command, which had insisted that the supply situation of the allies was as bad as the Germans when it was nowhere close. Second, I should note that the idea of trying to cross no man’s land by stealth, advanced by the supporting cast in the scene, is not insane. ‘Trench raids’ were a common feature of trench warfare: small units crossing no man’s land under cover of darkness to launch surprise dawn raids on opposing forward trench positions. Such raids weren’t meant to take ground, but to inflict casualties, as well as sustain morale (because leaving soldiers idle tends to sap morale) and gather intelligence (through prisoners and captured documents). As you might well imagine, such raids increased the terror of being on the front line, which is why allied units were not kept there for ‘almost a year’ but were instead cycled in and out (though the Germans tended to avoid this sort of cycling).)

Fair enough, you may say, the Wonder Woman scenario won’t work. But what about the original popular suggestion of simply going on the defensive and wearing the other fellow out?

We’ve already shown how, at the tactical level, this is a non-starter. These defensive systems are built around defense-in-depth and premised on counter-attacks because the initial enemy assault generally succeeds. An army that resolved itself never to counter-attack, could be levered off of one good defensive position after enough by bits and pieces until its entire line was compromised (probably by the loss of key railroad junctions in the rear when they came within range of enemy heavy artillery and were thus rendered unusable). Pure tactical defense was never an option; enemy attacks needed to be answered by counter-attacks because the entire line could not retreat indefinitely.

Via Wikipedia, a British 8 inch Howitzer Mk V, an example of heavy artillery in the First World War, capable of devastating long-range indirect fire. This gun could fire a 200lbs shell approximately six miles.

But what about an operational defensive, designed to wear thew enemy down by attrition? Well, here the problem is two-fold. The first problem is casualty ratios. Consider: at the Somme (1916), the British and French attacked and the Germans defended; the allies took 620,000 losses, inflicted 445,000 (a ratio of about 4:3 favoring the defender) and got basically nowhere. At Verdun (also 1916), the Germans attacked and the French defended; the Germans took 355,000 losses to the French’s 400,000 (a ratio of 7:8 favoring the attacker) and got basically nowhere. Over the whole of the German Spring Offensives (1918), the Germans took 688,341 casualties and inflicted 863,374 (a ratio of about 3:4, again favoring the attacker), knocked huge salients in the allied lines, didn’t break through and thereby lost the war.

I think here it is worth really noting how high the defender’s casualties are in these battles; I keep noting this but I want to stress: defenders suffered high casualties in trench warfare. Being on the defensive operationally did not save you any more than being tactically on the defensive did. You were just as likely to be killed in your trench by an enemy shell or grenade as you were on the offense machine-gunned trying to cross no man’s land. If the latter holds a larger place in the Anglophone consciousness (e.g. 1917 and Gallipoli) that has more to do with the British and Commonwealth forces being more often on the attack than the defense, not on the casualty implications of attacking or defending. You easily could take more losses defending a place than attacking it.

The point here is that casualty ratios didn’t reliably favor the defender in World War I. They did reliably favor the Germans who were often, but not always, the defenders in the west (in part because the Germans held the best ground over the entire western front almost without exception), though not by enough to off-set the German inferiority in manpower and materiel compared to the entire coalition arrayed against them.

War of Wills

Well, perhaps you say, that is a bit simplistic; what if we go on a strategic defensive – adopting a strategy of attrition? Note we are fairly far now from the idea that the easy solution to trench warfare was “don’t attack,” but this is the first time we reach was appears on its face to be a workable strategy: accept that this is a pure war of attrition and thus attempt to win the attrition.

And here is where I, the frustrated historian, let out the primal cry: “They did that! Those ‘idiot’ generals you were bashing on a moment ago did exactly this thing, they did it in 1916 and it didn’t work.”

As Robert Doughty (op. cit.) notes quite effectively, after the desperate search in 1915 for ways either around the trench stalemate or through it (either way trying to restore a war of maneuver), Joseph Joffre, French chief of the army staff, settled on a strategic plan coordinating British, Italian, French and Russian actions designed around a strategy of ‘rupture’ by which what was meant was that if all of the allies focused on attrition in each of their various theaters, eventually one theater would break for lack of resources (that’s the rupture). He was pretty damn explicit about this, writing about the war as a “struggle of attrition” in May, 1915 and setting a plan of action in December of 1915 to “do everything they can to attrit the adversary.”

Joffre’s plan did not go perfectly (the German offensive at Verdun upset the time-tables) but it did, in fact mean lower French losses in 1916 than in 1915 or 1914 and more severe German losses. Meanwhile, the German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn would at least subsequently claim to have been trying to do the same thing: achieve favorable casualty ratios in a war of attrition, with his set piece being the Battle of Verdun, designed to draw the French into bloody and useless repeated counter-attacks on ground that favored the Germans (there remains a lot of argument and uncertainty as to if that attritional strategy was the original plan, or merely Falkenhayn’s excuse for the failure to achieve meaningful strategic objectives at Verdun). In the end, the Verdun strategy, if that was the strategy, failed because while the Germans could get their favorable ratio on the attack, it slipped away from them in the inevitable French counter-attacks.

But as Clausewitz reminds us (drink!) will – both political and popular – is a factor in war too (indeed, it is one of the factors as part of the Clausewitzian trinity!). Both Joffre and Falkenhayn had to an extent seen that the war was going to run until one side ran out of soldiers and material and aimed to win that long, grueling war; for which they were both promptly fired! The solution to the war which said that all one needed to do was sacrifice a few more million soldiers and wait 2, or perhaps 3 or maybe even 4 more years for the enemy to run out first was unacceptable to either the political leaders or the public. 1917 came around and both sides entrusted the war to generals who claimed to be able to produce victories faster than that: to Robert Nivelle and Erich Ludendorff, with their plans of bold offensives.

And to be clear, from a pure perspective of ‘how do we win the war’ that political calculation is not entirely wrong. Going to the public, asking them to send their sons to fight, to endure more rationing, more shortages, more long casualty lists with the explanation that you had no plans to win the war beyond running Germany out of sons slightly faster than you ran France out of sons would have led to the collapse of public morale (and subsequent defeat). Telling your army that would hardly be good for their morale either (the French army would mutiny in 1917 in any event). Remember that in each battle, casualties were high on both sides so there was no avoiding that adopting an attrition strategy towards the enemy meant also accepting that same attrition on your own troops.

And, as we’ve discussed endlessly, morale matters in war! “Wait for the British blockade to win the war by starving millions of central Europeans to death” was probably, in a cold calculus, the best strategy (after the true winning strategy of “don’t have a World War I”), but it was also, from a political perspective, an unworkable one. And a strategy which is the best except for being politically unworkable is not the best because generals must operate in the real world, not in a war game where they may cheerfully disregard questions of will. In short, both sides attempted a strategy of pure attrition on the Western Front and in both cases, the strategy exhausted political will years before it could have borne fruit.

And so none of these easy solutions work; in most cases (except for ‘recruit a lost Greek demi-god’) they were actually tried and failed either due to the dynamics (or perhaps, more truthfully, the statics) of trench warfare or because they proved impossible implement from a morale-and-politics perspective, violating the fundamental human need to see an end to the war that didn’t involve getting nearly everyone killed first.

Next time we’ll take a look at the solutions that actually did disrupt this trench stalemate and consider the degree to which such solutions could have been implemented any earlier than they were.

  1. Direct fire here means the guns fire on a low trajectory; you are more or less pointing them where you want the shell to go and shooting straight at it, as you might with a traditional firearm
  2. The problem with direct-fire artillery here is that you cannot effectively hide it in a trench (because its direct fire) and you can’t keep it well concealed, so in the event of an attack, the enemy is likely to begin by using their artillery to disable your artillery. The limitations of direct-fire guns hit the French particularly hard once the trench stalemate set in, because it reduced the usefulness of their very effective 75mm field gun (the famed ‘French 75’ after which the modern cocktail is named). That didn’t make direct-fire guns useless, but it put a lot more importance on much heavier indirect-fire artillery.

185 thoughts on “Collections: No Man’s Land, Part I: The Trench Stalemate

  1. “for what it is worth, I generally consider Luigi Cadorna, Italian chief of Staff 1914-1917, to have been the worst general I know of.”

    Second place. Horrible as Cadorna was, Enver Pasha was even worse.

    1. That’s the Ottoman general that completely bungled the counterattack into Russia from Armenia? IIRC, he was also the guy who was “I am war minister, therefore I am a competent and superb field commander” while the narrator is just sitting there going “No, he is most certainly not.”

      That military campaign was pretty cringe when I read about it, but the Caucuses are one of the worst theaters of World War I for coverage. Perhaps the worst outside of the colonial theaters of war.

  2. Bravo! That antepenultimate paragraph is about the neatest summary of this whole topic one could wish for. Having tossed out many far more verbose attempts, I’m truly impressed.

  3. One factor you didn’t mention, Prof. Devereaux, was primitive communications. While HQ possessed both wired and wireless telegraph, and there were (unreliable) field telephones but only within one’s own trench system, there was no such thing as a portable radio; and once an assault went over the top its commanders had no way of communicating success or failure, of requesting reinforcements or artillery support, other than essentially the same means Napoleon had- flares, carrier pigeons and couriers. Except that Boney at least could usually see the whole battlefield himself, and his couriers were on horses.

    What this meant, in terms of trench assaults, is that on top of all the disadvantages you have given for an attacking force in the enemy forward trenches, they also are effectively cut off from higher command back on their own side of the lines, and the generals have no idea what is going on and no meaningful way to manage the battle: once the assault wave goes over the top it’s out of their hands.

      1. Indeed, failing that their runners can get back a lot quicker. And your maps of your own trench system are going to be excellent, and your recently ejected troops are going to know those trenches better than the poor bastards who just stumbled through a barrage to fall into them for the first time.

  4. So not only are you ruining a lot of the pop-history stuff I’ve read/watched, you’re ruining “Blackadder Goes Forth” too! 8-({


    “These efforts didn’t merely get to be more, but also more complex.” – Is there a word missing after the first ‘more’?

    “For instance, most of the so-called ‘Hindenburg Line’ (the Germans called it the Siegfriedstellung or ‘Siegfiend Position’)” – fried or fiend – Is this a typo of just some German language thing?

  5. >By Passchendaele (1917) the British were deploying some 3,000 artillery pieces; one for every 15 yards of frontage they were attacking.

    I think this figure illustrates the difference between WW1 and WW2 rather well in terms of why WW1 in the West was static while WW2 was in general mobile everywhere. There is quote that is attributed to some Soviet general late in the war (usually Zhukov, but I don’t think that he said that): “When you have TWO HUNDRED* artillery pieces per kilometer of attack frontage, your troops do not report about contact with the enemy, they report only about gaining new positions”.

    *At Passchendaele British had ~70 guns per kilometer according to quoted figure.

    1. The late-war Soviets had a truly prodigious volume of artillery, probably more per kilometer of frontage than in many other places where the war managed to be mobile anyway.

      Zhukov was operating in a reality where there were tracklaying armored vehicles to support troop advance over territory torn up by the artillery, air support to selectively disrupt the enemy rear areas and make their own defense and ability to launch counterattacks less reliable, and better portable communications equipment to enable the frontline infantry to coordinate with the above.

      With those advantages, a considerably lesser concentration of artillery would probably have sufficed (with greater difficulty) to permit the restoration of mobile warfare conditions, at least most of the time along most of the front.

  6. I’ll start off that I’ve never done much reading on the trench deadlocks of WW1, and what reading I did do was inspired by a video game, namely this one. (I used to play it on Armorgames, but that no longer seems up anymore). One thing that struck me, is how bad communications are. You’re a commander, either British or German, fighting over a contested bit of front in 1917. You only know how to do three things.

    1) Call for reinforcements
    2) Call for fire support
    3) Order your men forward to try to take the enemy line of trench, or die trying.

    Now it did NOT have the race to the parapet bit, and there weren’t covered communication trenches to move between your lines, so it wasn’t a perfect simulation. But I did find that if everything worked out, it’s the way the article describes: You smash up the enemy trench line with your artillery, keep their heavy hitters like machine guns from moving, and your assault forces will almost always take the trench.

    But your opponent is rarely so coperative. While your guys are going over the top, he’ll likely as not launch his own artillery strike and now suddenly half your guys are dead and the remainder don’t have enough force to take the trench, even battered as it is. And, most importantly, THERE IS NO WAY TO CALL THEM BACK at this point. They either do or die, and the “die” is way more likely unless you send in reinforcements double-quick, but that means that if it fails, you’ve probably depleted your local reserves and are very vulnerable to counterattack.

    Like I said, the details don’t seem to be quite right, but it definitely had me on the edge of my seat in games, trying to push just a liiiiiitle harder to break through. And then often not.

    Anyway, I was wondering if you could say anything about the ways that communication functioned for these trenchline offensive and counteroffensives, given how vital it was to have everything timed out precisely and how difficult it is to move around and pass messages when you’ve got shells flying everywhere.

    1. Generally, communications didn’t work.

      Dr. Devereaux focuses on the material and reconnaissance problems, but the lack of portable radios were another big factor making offensives hard to sustain. In established positions you had telephone cables, but if you wanted phone connections to newly-captured positions you either strung them across the old no-man’s land in the open (in which case they get cut by the next enemy barrage) or you bury them safely (in which case the new positions are lost before the phone lines get to the front).

      For the most part they were stuck with runners, pigeons, flares, and signal flags.

  7. I wonder if part of the reason we don’t focus so much on what happened when the attackers actually got to the enemy trench is that there’s just no way to make a bloody slaughter at bayonet range into anything remotely inspiring or valiant in the retelling, even in a “doomed heroism” way. I can’t imagine the survivors wanting to reflect much on it.

    The idea of odds favouring the attacker (on a tactical level) is really surprising to me, I think because of my memories of learning about siege warfare in the American Civil War, which I understand is often seen as a distant precursor to WWI. Iirc the casualty ratios in the ACW vastly favoured the defenders when infantry attacked an entrenched position – so what changed in the intervening years? Artillery tonnage?

    1. I suspect artillery tonnage is a part, but maybe even more important is the advent of explosive artillery, making each gun and ton of shot enormously more devastating.

      1. Also the advent of early motorized transport and the denser rail network in Western Europe. In most American Civil War battles it would have been nearly impossible for the armies to transport thousands of tons of shells to the battle, regardless of how deadly the shells were or were not. By World War One both sides were doing this on a regular basis.

        The only exception I can think of this (and not coincidentally, the time when the American Civil War most closely resembled World War One) was the Siege of Petersburg, when Grant brought up an enormous logistical chain involving massive rapid expansion of nearby riverine ports and a huge transportation effort.

    2. There’s also the element of there being no footage of people fighting in the trenches. The Peter Jackson WW1 documentary relied on illustrations for the interviews of soldiers experiences going into enemy trenches, because the Camera’s weren’t mobile enough.

    3. From the descriptions (although an actual historian of this stuff would need to comment) it sounds like the difference in losses came from crossing from one side to another and that the U.S. civil war is still big masses of people rather than more spread out methods of World war 1. (The spread lines of World war 1, from what I’ve seen, were an adaptation to Civil War technology, spreading out people a little, but weapons had gotten better over that time, leading to infiltration methods another comment mentions.) Plus artillery not being able to overwhelm a defender as described.

      Another way to think about it is that combat is more spread out. So situations like one army reaching an enemy line and being repelled by nearby soldiers (U.S. civil War) are roughly equivalent to front line trenches being taken, and than retaken in a counterattack. There were situations where U.S. civil war armies got some people to an enemy position and fought over it, but not enough to actually win.

    4. The main factor here is a series of inventions- fixed and semi-fixed ammunition cartridges, sealed breechloading, recoil buffers, and smokeless powders- that allow for two things: firstly, quick-firing artillery, which is absolutely essential for WWI artillery barrages, as it allows howitzers to fire rapidly enough to perform creeping and smothering barrages, and secondly, the magazine-fed bolt-action rifle. During the American Civil War, even at the very end, most units are using a muzzleloading rifle musket, so they cannot effectively fire on the move unless they’re one of a small proportion that were equipped with magazine weapons or breechloaders. In addition, rifle sights during the ACW were not standardized to account for the differences in rifle versus smoothbore ballistics, so the hypothetical greater range of a rifle musket was only available in practice to dedicated marksmen who zeroed sights in on their own. By the time of WWI, standardized rifle sights exist and are on every infantry rifle, and that rifle can be effectively fired on the move for multiple rounds at a time, and reloaded while the soldier was prone on the ground.

      So in the ACW, the strongest advantage of an entrenched defense is that static positions develop more effective fire, because attackers must stop for a prolonged period to reload after firing, during which they must be standing, meaning that taking cover also interrupts reloading. (And here we get into the note that ACW troops were less effectual than European troops would have been in similar situations, because they were largely unwilling to use bayonets and so their attacks often devolved into horrendous bloodshed like the Devil’s Den or Sunken Lane because attacker and defender stood still shooting at each other, neither able to engage in shock combat.) By the end of the 19th century, and especially by WWI, when QF artillery and bolt-action rifles have become mature technology, infantry can develop effective fire on the advance and artillery can deliver shells more quickly.

      This may come up in the future segments, but as a consequence of this, the American army enters WWI convinced that it can rely on large infantry rifle formations to achieve breakthrough and pursuit, simply by concentrating on marksmanship. It’s still a real matter of debate, I believe, whether Pershing ever accepted the need for the late-war combined-arms infantry platoon, artillery barrages, etc. while the war was happening.

      1. The repeating rifle was a big innovation in the ACW.

        But the difference in entrenched warfare was big. In the Battle of Chattanooga, the Army of the Cumberland won the battle by accident. They were ordered to take certain positions in the valley, found that brought them under fire, and quickly obeyed when the officers with them ordered to go on.

    5. It was definitely the focus of the books and poems by the guys who were there. But those are emotionally hard to read. A video game would permanently scar anyone who played it.

    6. Read up on the Battle of Dybbøl in the Second Schleschwig War (1864). The Danes were inferior in strength and armaments (the Germans had breech-loading rifles, while the Danes still carried muzzle-loading), but the battle foreshadow some of the features of latter wars, with extensive trenches being built and – in particular – the heavy artillery barrage before the successful Prussian assault.

    7. I would guess changes in weapons and infrastructure, but also frontage. The western front was small enough that you could have trenches along the entire front. The only way forward was through a trench. In the eastern front and the ACW you had room to maneuver.

    8. I imagined the final assault into a trench to be similar in concept to a Napoleonic (or earlier) bayonet charge. The charge was decisive, but very few soldiers were wounded by bayonet. Instead, one side or the other retreated before or just as contact was made. Ie, the attackers would be driven off by musket fire, or the defenders would see the attackers coming right at them with bayonets (possibly supported by a massed volley) and retreat before they got there.
      So, to analogize that to the trenches- I imagine that if the attackers actually got to the trench, close enough to throw hand grenades, or use shotguns, the defenders wouldn’t stick around long. The trench fighting would be incredibly brutal when it happened, and since visibility and communications were poor, the defenders couldn’t have known exactly when the attackers were arriving, but if it became clear that they lost the race to the parapets, and there were attackers invading the trench, then I suspect that the defenders would rather retreat to the next trench line than fight the attackers for every inch.

  8. Civ4 almost had all of the ingredients needed to simulate WW1 trench warfare accurately. Artillery (siege in general) was OP in how it could shred entire stacks of units with collateral damage. And railroads were OP in how you could draw in units from 10 tiles away to counter-attack any attack that, in turn, had to crawl through your culture tiles at 1 or 2 tiles per turn. The only thing Civ4 was missing was a “zone of control” system like Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri had, which encouraged spreading super-stacks out into a front of strongpoints because it prevented enemy units from even moving into your territory if they were logjammed by the “zone of control” mechanism. I never liked how in Civ4 huge army unit stacks could just glide past each other without friction.

    1. Yes, I think the train thing deserves a longer look too. A well designed trench system could more or less guarantee that it took longer for the attacking division to get through it, than it took the defender to bring up many more men.

      1. The train thing is huge; the defender can move troops, supplies and artillery up to the battle zone. The defender has a 10+ mile gap of craters, trenches, barbed wire and mud to move thousands of tons of material through. 10+ miles swept by the defender’s artillery fire.

  9. I’m glad to see someone recommend Stokesbury. I don’t think that book gets the recognition it deserves. It’s much better than some other one volume histories that have loftier reputations.

  10. Oooh, feels like we’re getting to the doctrine part. The deep battle doctrine, to be exact, as a suggested solution.

    Also, not having studied the trench war, I wonder if aerial power could have been used to disrupt the counter-attacks. I mean, this is somewhere between the concepts of the deep battle and the AirLand battle, but, I wonder if it would have been feasible in the period.

    1. The ground-attack capability of WW1 aircraft was essentially nugatory. A bit of strafing, or the hand-dropping of bombs little bigger than a finned hand grenade. (There were genuine bomber aircraft, both lighter and heavier than air, but those were used strategically).

      The primary roles of a/c were a) reconnaisance and b) artillery spotting.

          1. Nope. Aircraft were playing a significant role in 1916 and by 1917 the system had become an art. They were used to observe for artillery, photograph and simply observe where the front was. This was thanks to radios which were connected to artillery batteries. Thanks to that, you could call fire down on an enormous area, including far behind the lines. Aerial photography gave you exact maps of enemy positions and these helped you prepare your offensive.

            Other innovations were required to crack the stalemate, but aircraft formed a significant part of it. The reason you have the iconic aces is that they were needed to prevent the enemy doing all of the above to you. Just because they couldn’t bomb everything themselves didn’t mean they were useless, far from it

        1. “Please hit the second ‘o’ in ‘Holy Roman Empire’–yes, Bob Newhart was joking, but depending on old the maps were…

  11. With the caveat that I’ve never read anything in Russian, only in translation, I don’t really think Deep Battle doctrine was a solution to trench warfare. It was more a solution to the conditions of the Russian Civil War than anything else, and has enormous emphasis on maneuvering elements in a way that just can’t really happen when there’s trench deadlock.

    As for aerial power? I don’t think that’s likely. Planes of WW1 couldn’t fly all that high or that fast, and were vulnerable to anti-air fire in the form of “guys on the ground aiming their rifles at the planes and taking potshots” It wouldn’t be until far later when things like speed, altitude, range, and bomb load had been vastly improved that you see the ability of airplanes to really disrupt counterattacks or movements of reserves. In fact, the French were stunned in 1939 when the Germans were paralyzing the Polish with that method. (The paper is more about French reaction to the 1939 Polish campaign in general, but the use of German airpower is of course a large part of that.)

    1. Eventually both sides did figure out a workable solution: Hutiertaktik or infiltration tactics. This is why the German spring offensives in 1918 captured so much ground – unfortunately for Ludendorff, Germany’s logistic situation did not permit the extended sustainment required to carry the advance to the Channel. The Allies weren’t dumb and used the same tactics right back; the Hundred Days was fluid for more than just the crumbling German resistance.

      1. “infiltration tactics”

        Were actually a strategic dead-end. They worked against an unprepared enemy, but once the British & French understood what the Germans were doing, the solution was relatively simple. The lead wave of infiltrators are lightly equipped and relatively few in number. The followup waves are heavily loaded and large — so the key is to stop those reinforcements from making it across no man’s land to back up the first wave. As soon as the front line fell, the British & French would unload heavy artillery barrages on no man’s land, slaughtering the second wave. After that, the infiltrators could be isolated and picked off.

        What worked for the British & French was “bite and hold” tactics, which involved “biting off” the front of the German defenses, and then stopping there. The attackers would fortify their new trench (with a heavy standing barrage between it and the rest of the German line), wait, and slaughter the German counter-attack. Then a week or so later, rinse and repeat.

        1. Bite and hold was an open-field development of long-standing siege tactics. It brought the pioneers and combat engineers to the front. Still worked in WWII, where the Brits used it against Rommel in the fighting around Alam Halfa and Alamein (both essentially static defensive positions). Storm-trooper tactics were also developed by pioneers, but not really thought through.

        2. Stokesbury (op. cit.) suggests that what “worked,” in the sense of breaking the trench warfare stalemate, was a combination of British technical innovation (the tank) and German tactical innovation (infiltration). Eventually, the combination of relatively light, small units, advancing rapidly and without warning on a narrow front, with accompanying armor, would lead to the blitzkrieg methods of WW II and ultimately to what Prof. Devereux has called the “modern system” or the “third system.” So it’s unfair to say that infiltration was a dead end.

          1. What worked in 1918 was detailed aerial reconnaissance, predicted shooting, thorough combined arms doctrine and training and realistic plans rehearsed and adjusted at all levels. See Monash’s offensives. Each well-planned offensive took a bite out of the opposing line, forcing a fall-back to less prepared positions. A quick succession could shatter an entire corps front.

          2. As I recall, Stokesbury is less enthusiastic about “bite and hold” as a war-winning solution than Peter Thomson. I’ll be interested in Prof. Devereux’s views over the coming weeks.

        3. On the face of it, all tactics are a “strategic dead end”. Tactics are not strategy, after all. All the Western Front armies could demonstrably break through the enemy defences in 1918. They all did so. But what could any of them do afterwards? The ratio of force to space was too high to permit much use by cavalry, and armoured columns were still in the future.

          The point of winning a battle is to exploit it. What happens when no one can exploit a victory?

          (It occurs to me that similar problems must have been encountered by such cavalryless armies as the Inca and Aztec, which might offer interesting comparisons.)

      2. Hutier definitely worked well at Caporetto (also Cadorna was still in charge), and at the beginning of the German Spring Offensive of 1918. But the Germans also happened to strike one of the weakest portions of the BEF sector, so that certainly helped.

    2. The Russians also never really had trench warfare; the concentration of forces in the east was never high enough for true stalemate to set in, leaving maneuver warfare on the table for most of the war.

      If you’ve never faced trench stalemate, you don’t build tactics to defeat trench stalemate.

      (I have also seen interesting talk about how the German experience with both the stalemate of the Western Front and the maneuver of the Eastern Front gave them the right mindset for developing interwar doctrine.

    1. Multiple times. Somewhere in Belgium, there still is a mountain-sized pile of buried explosives that failed to go off at an intended moment.

    2. Absolutely. At the Somme, and elsewhere, mining key sectors of enemy trench was tried- and worked, for a given definition of “worked.” And generally were not exploited as stupidly as the Crater was.

    3. Was one of the more famous battles (Passchendaele) Ran into the problem described here, they got counterattacked and the attack didn’t end up capturing much of anything.

    4. And how On! On a vastly bigger scale. Mining was a very popular tactic for the British Empire in particular, culminating in the 19 mines totalling 450 tonnes detonated under the German positions at Messines Ridge.

      As per Bret’s explanation though, that still only deals with the first line, which was not actually the hardest problem. It does mean far fewer offensive casualties on the initial attack, which is handy later, and Messines was a victory

    5. Commune of Vauquois in north-eastern France was completely destroyed. 519 separate mines fired there by the French or Germans between 1915 and 1918. There is a memorial there on the hill, a small museum, and the remains of rear trench lines and a string of craters cutting across the ridge there. The rock there was very conducive to digging.


    Yep. Tunneling to put mines, and counter-tunneling to disrupt mines were tried. In the end, it doesn’t do anything about the issue of counter attacks. Taking the first trench was never a problem, and you’re not going to dig a miles long tunnel from the enemy’s trench while also losing to counter attacks.

  13. “Wait for the British blockade to win the war by starving millions of central Europeans to death”

    But how could anyone know if the British blockade would win before the German submarine offensive did?

    I imagine it must be quite hard to make any confident long term prediction in a war in which revolutions in military technology seem to be a more-or-less annual event (gas, tanks, U-boats, etc).

    1. A minor note: the full submarine offensive doesn’t begin until 1917, by which point the debate was already well decided. But even there, you’re hitting on one of the central strategic debates over the direction of British war policy, over whether to pour men into the Western Front or whether to follow the example of the Napoleonic Wars and land forces at the edges of the Central Powers territories and withdraw troops from the continent. This latter “Easterner” faction included Churchill and Jacky Fisher, though Fisher focused more on his scheme for breaking through the Skagerrak into the Baltic and Churchill went for Gallipoli, the Dardanelles generally, and eventually the Mesopotamia campaign.

      I think that for very obvious reasons laid out in the main article, the Easterners were all deeply, incredibly wrong, and the Westerners were right- ultimately, the sheer bloodshed would not allow for morale to survive any withdrawal from the continent, and no “soft underbelly of Europe” strategy could allow for easy victories without horrendous bloodshed.

      1. On the face of it, the Mediterranean Easterners were assuming that it would be easier to fight your way to Germany through the Alps than through Flanders. I’d take some persuading of that.

        The Baltic Easterners were assuming that the High Seas Fleets could be destroyed first. And it wasn’t.

        1. >>On the face of it, the Mediterranean Easterners were assuming that it would be easier to fight your way to Germany through the Alps than through Flanders.

          well, that’s not taking in account the strategical point of view.
          It was the accepted truth in these days that you could not win a war when fighting 2 opponents at both ends. Just what the German decided to do. But they had a devilish plan: play the defense against the weakest opponent (en 1914 it was Russia) and use full strength to crush the mightiest one (the Allied). It almost worked but unfortunately the Russians proved more efficient than expected against the German reservists and the German generals had to divert 2 divisions to save Berlin -a detail that is not much cited by French apologists of the Marne battle.

          After that the German strategy shifted: it had been proved (in the pudding) that the strongest opponent was in fact Russia, so they shifted the bulk of their forces to the East Front, and played defense against the Allied forces. So the balance of numerical strength on the West front was about 3/4 to 1 against Germany in 1915.
          However, the tactical points cited by the master here were playing for Germany.

          So, the French/British were *desperate* to draw some strength off the Russian forces who where facing the almost full German military power. The true goal was to avoid a ‘our so-called allies are letting us take the full load of the job, so let’s giveup instead’ by the Russians. Waiting was never an option. That’s a not much discussed reason for the insanely costly attacks, and the Gallipoli adventure as well. Gallipolli could have worked (in this sense of drawing away German resources) in fact if the Allied had been more reactive, but unfortunately when the ponderous expedition finally landed the secret was known to everyone in the Middle East and they had a very warm reception. Churchill was responsible for the idea, but not really for the total bungling of it.

          Source: 1915 – The death of innocence by L. MacDonald – not mainly about military strategy but more on experience on the ground.

          BTW from this book, it’s not obvious that in 1915 the *material* advantage was favouring the Allied. Most of industrial strength of France had been seized by Germany in the initial onslaught, and much of British arms industry was a shamble, especially ammunition. So Germans could easily wait out the artillery barrage of especially the British, IIRC at a moment they were mocking the Brits by showing them that they were expecting an attack because the Brits had avoided any fire for several days (to save ammunition).

          1. IIRC from Castles of Steel, the High Seas Fleet left port a few times in 1914-1916, in hopes of surprising part of the Grand Fleet. The Grand Fleet left port mostly in hopes of surprising the High Seas Fleet.

            The resulting engagements tended to remind me of Terry Pratchett’s description of Koom Valley: “the only battle known to history in which each side ambushed the other”.

            The trouble, at least from the viewpoint of spectators wanting a nice dramatic campaign, is that all the guile, trickery and race for technological advantage tended to cancel out. After all, if neither side is willing to fight unless it is sure it will win, and the two sides can hardly find each other even when they are both trying to, there is not much chance of a decisive battle that’s fun to read about.

            Very disappointing sort of war: someone should write to the scriptwriters.

      2. To me, it shows how blindingly stupid Churchill could be. ‘Soft underbelly’ meant trying to fight an offensive campaign through several hundred miles of mountainous territory, at the end of extended naval supply lines.

        1. Yes, and no.

          Assume for the sake of argument that a naval/amphibious operation at Gallipoli could open a path to Istanbul and enable an overwhelming Anglo-French fleet to reach the city.

          This much, at least, we can imagine Churchill having been right about. Even if it was never going to work in practice, it was going to fail for the same reasons everyone including the smart commanders failed- the utter inability of infantry to overcome a defense in depth, or for frontline troops on the attack to coordinate with even the most powerful artillery available. Because you don’t get an artillery support situation much more favorable than “the entire Mediterranean Fleet is standing by to back you up.”

          Anyway, assume from the Entente perspective that they can go to Constantinople and give the Turks the works. This much, we can say Churchill was not an utter fool for imagining possible in World War One.

          Having reached Istanbul, the Entente may be able to dictate surrender to the Ottoman Empire at cannonpoint. If they can’t, they can at least force the Ottoman government to withdraw to another capital that isn’t within easy range of 13.5″ shells. Which in turn means they have to retreat into inland Anatolia, having lost a considerable amount of industry and being subject to bombardment of the coast at more or less any point.

          At this point, the Western Allies can supply Russia (a serious problem at this point in the war). They can heavily support Romania, which inconveniences Germany (oil), slightly reinforces overall Allied strength on the Eastern Front, and in general makes the Central Powers’ situation that much worse on top of the collapsed or at least diminished and cut-off state of the Ottomans, which in turn leaves the embattled Austro-Hungarians’ southern flank flapping in the breeze.

          Within the strategic context of this operation (late 1914 and early 1915), Italy is still neutral too, and a victory at Istanbul does a lot to pull them towards the Entente.

          Now, none of this magically causes the Central Powers to collapse all of a sudden. It probably doesn’t even shorten the war by all that much in the grand scheme of things. But at least trying to accomplish all this at the one point on the Central Powers’ entire military frontier where an enemy capital is located no more than a few dozen miles behind their front lines and can conceivably be captured by a determined offensive…

          …Well, I can fault them for the implementation but I can’t fault them for trying. Even the realistic consequences of success would have been a very significant advantage in the overall context of the war, before we begin to consider any outright ignorance-fueled fantasies that anyone involved may have held.

          1. The original plan for Gallipoli was to force naval passage without the use of significant ground forces. Supposedly, Churchill was told that there were simply no troops available when he first drew up the plans; it was only when ships started getting sunk and damaged that troops miraculously became available for use.

        2. To be fair to Churchill, that phrase dates to the next war, in which Italy was an enemy. Italy is a long thin peninsula which is in principle highly vulnerable to amphibious operations by a superior naval power. Germany is not. Nor was Austria-Hungary. You could argue that one of the British Navy’s more important contributions to WW1 was to detach Italy from the Triple Alliance and bring it into the war on the Entente side.

          Churchills major problem would seem to be that he could easily get carried away by himself. He needed someone to bring him back down to earth. And nail his feet to the floor.

          1. And they did make a lot of attacks by sea on Italy.

            There’s a Bill Maudlin cartoon where a soldier is explaining to a sailor how things work on shipboard — because the sailor was green, and they of course kept using the same men to do the amphibious attacks, since they were trained.

      3. I agree that it’s quite unlikely that attacking Germany up through Turkey or the Balkans would have been very successful. Though if there was, somehow, a successful capture of the Dardanelles which forced Turkey out of the war, I do wonder whether or not more support to Russia through the Black Sea might have at least delayed their civil war and kept their armies in the field against Germany longer.

        But that’s just back to attrition, but now even more of it.

        In theory, even the attempt to, or heck the appearance of getting ready to, attack German from some other direction would force them to spread their forces more thinly as the frontage area expands; thus reducing the density of troops and artillery at any one spot along it. But unfortunately, without massive infusions of additional troops to send to those sectors (hello USA’s very late entry into the war), the Triple Entente would also have to spread their existing forces to those new sectors thus almost certainly making them incapable of successfully exploiting the more thinly spread German lines.

  14. “though screenwriters do love battalions; I assume because it has that word ‘battle’ in it”

    One reason British writers like battalions is that’s the bit that goes anywhere and stays together as a unit. Traditionally a British soldier’s unit in terms of culture and loyalty is to the Regiment but complete regiments rarely went anywhere. The battalion is what gets shipped out to a theatre, joined with other battalions into a temporary division.

  15. (though screenwriters do love battalions; I assume because it has that word ‘battle’ in it)

    In fairness, the term “division” sounds a lot more generic than it is to the average layman. It sounds like “we took the army and divided it into pieces of some size”. If you need a word that conveys the idea of “a whole lot of soldiers” to a “typical” modern audience, “battalion” is probably the right word to choose.

    Of course, that’s largely due to the fact that unit sizes other than “battalion” are rarely name-dropped in the populat consciousness. It’s a self-maintaining problem.

    1. All good points! However, the 2017 Wonder Woman movie was solely written by Americans (credited screenwriter Allan Heinberg, with uncredited rewrites by director Patty Jenkins and producer Geoff Johns). British storytelling conventions probably had little direct influence on this movie.

  16. My biggest complaint about WW was how they treated the Germans like “Nazis with trenches and poison gas”. WWI is a war that perfectly fits the theme of “Ares can poison the minds of all men”, and is something which Diana’s humanism and optimism can help “fix”. Instead, we ended up with one *clear* Bad Guy (Ares, but also the Germans).

    At a bare minimum, I’d have had the final offensive be, not the Good Entente Guys against a last-ditch gas attack by the Germans, but the Good Guys (plus a bunch of recruited Germans, including Miss Poison who has had a change of heart) stopping an attack by the British on a German village using the captured gas. Make it clear that “everyone was the bad guys” which can be paralleled with “but everyone can be the good guys too”.

    But instead we got more WWII envy rather than a good story about the tragedy of war.

    1. Hard agree. It was the one serious tonal misstep of that film, leanin into the xenophobic ‘Germans are always bad’ trope

    2. There’s some suspicion that it was originally written to be set in WWII until The First Avenger occupied that story space.

      Among other things, the German villain (who died in the movie) was better known for his appearance in WWII than in WWI.

      1. “Among other things, the German villain (who died in the movie) was better known for his appearance in WWII than in WWI.”

        …Ludendorff? He was a WW1 general that died in 1937, how could he possibly be better known for WW2?

    3. Ehhhh…considering some of the stuff Ludendorff et al. had planned for their Eastern conquests, that portrayal isn’t as bonkers as you might think.

      That having been said, one thing the WW movie has happen that no one explores the implications of is Dr. Poison and Ludendorff whacking the “the German high command.” One presumes that that includes Hindenburg, and just to make things even more interesting WW herself kills off Ludendorff. This should have some extremely interesting implications for postwar German politics, but as near as I can tell the historical timeline for the DC universe just chugs along our line.

        1. And the Nazis’ ideas of Lebensraum didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. The German Empire had its share of murderous expansionists in government. And in Namibia.

    4. Well, they weren’t Nazis – but Nazism is way out there as a political aberration (seriously – let’s breed a master race and conquer the world, genociding all others???). They did have a more ruthless approach to war than the other European powers (Louvain, treatment of Belgian and French civilians in occupied territory, shooting black French POWs…) and decidedly megalomaniac war aims (Poland, a strip of Belgian coast, bits of north France, a Ukrainian satellite, the Baltic…Wilhelmine Germany was not known for rational policy-making.

      1. The German Empire committed the first genocide of the 20th century against herdsmen in what is now Namibia, regarded the conquered territories of “Ober Ost” as full of backwards peasants, tried to use land policy to displace Poles in eastern Prussia, and a lot more. They were the prequel to Nazism.

    5. I read Absolute Destruction, about the pre-WW1 German Army, on the recommendation of our host, and I have to say they did look to have been poisoned by Ares. By their reasoning, they could have taken an argument about a bar bill, and ended up with the Apocalypse.

      And there is a biography of Ludendorff called The First Nazi.

      1. “And there is a biography of Ludendorff called The First Nazi.” Which is insanely bad written. This theme as such makes sense and I would love to read some good book on it. But *this* book is not the good book I was looking for. I strongly NOT reccommend it.

      1. He was surrounded by incompetents and betrayed, for having courage where they had cowardice. Badoglio scapegoated him! Look at the real facts!

      2. god damn, I hardly know how someone can think this, even a die-hard fascisti shouldn’t be that attached to Cadorna, I don’t think I’m any authority on military strategy to critique him, but reviving decimations? Executing more of your own soldiers in a campaign than even the losing armies did in the course of the war? Cult of the hard man, I suppose.

        1. Cut away the incompetent and lazy, and you will have the greatest fighting force in the world. Cadorna’s vision was only halted by cowardly subordinates and politician!

          1. 🙄🙄 I hope you’re being ironic! Because that’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.

          2. Make up your mind. Either he cut away the incompetent and the lazy, OR he had cowardly subordinates.

      3. It is hard to tell if one, both, or neither of you is joking.

        From what I’ve heard, sounds like a legitimate position.

  17. Point of pedantry: both you and wikipedia label the photo of no-man’s land as being in Belgium, but the picture itself is labeled Flanders, *France*. Although I wouldn’t want to over-rely on the labeling of an American officer, there *was* some heavy fighting in French Flanders near the end of the war, near Hazebrouck

  18. I read storm of steel by Ernst Jünger. He mentions that as people got used to the trenched they no longer flinched from artillery fire. In one chapter he recounts how he, a veteran and a green officer were talking in the trenches. Then the artilleryfire started again, he and the veteran (he himself was experienced as well) calmly walked into the underground bunker, while the green officer rushed down and ended up slipping down the stairs. Also, during assaults he and his men (at that point he was an officer leading stormtroopers) did not flinch from artilleryfire either. He would “sense” whether the artillery was coming his way or not. (near the end of the they hear a shell coming right for them, the experienced men look at eachother with fear, and half his squad gets blown apart, which is the only point in his book where he is shocked).

    Another thing of artillery is during the battle of the Somme. Here he is ordered to lead his men to hold a position. They move forward, and during the night they hide in a cellar to sleep, but an artillery barrage keeps them awake all night. Deep in the night one of the men breaks down from the constant bombardment and starts screaming and attacking the others and they had to pin him down. Then they move their position during the night. They had directions of the trenches they had to follow to get to their point, but the heavy bombardment made those trenches mere ditches. In the end they find the place, tell the people there they are the replacements, and those men leave. They sit there, waiting for the enemy attack, and one of them has a flare pistol. They are supposed to fire it when they are attacked, so the artillery can bombard their assailants. The enemy never comes, but the guy with the flare pistol accidentally triggers it and a huge barrage lands just in front of them (the author drearly notes how thousands of reichsmarks blow up in a fiery barrage in front of them). Reading that book you can quite clearly feel how much artillery just turned the whole war into a brutal meatgrinder where you wouldnt get shot, you would just get turned into mincemeat by giant artillery shells.

    During his stay at the front of the somme two things happen that I found quite remarkable. First, the night was pitch black, but sometimes a flare would be shot, and he could see around him. He remarks “when i looked around i see the reflection of the flare in the helmets (they just introduced the stahlhelm at this point) and bayonets of my comrades. Even if we get defeated, our spirits are indomitable”. And at one point a few british men appear bearing food. They were lost in the darkness and ended up in the enemy trench. The author’s squad (or whatever his unit was) ended up killing the men, since they didnt really know what to do, and they were technically enemies.

    It is quite an interesting book, since the author is quite convinced of the “universal soldier” concept. And tries to apply it in such a brutal and dehumanizing war.

    1. Ernst Junger is in some ways a great source on World War One, and in other ways a horrible source on World War One because he was quite possibly the only man on the entire Western Front who was having fun doing what everyone else was doing.

      If Junger is our model for the “universal soldier,” then I can only say that they broke the mold before they made him. Guy was weird.

      1. And he lived to be 103, despite taking some serious wounds. Must have been something in the water to account for his longevity.

      2. Given how many war veterans ended up signing up for more war after 1918–see the Black and Tans and the Freikorps–I don’t think Junger was entirely alone in that regard.

        1. The Freikorps soldiers felt like they had no choice. Germany was facing the Bolshevik menace, so they had to keep fighting (You guessed it, some of these guys later joined the NSDAP). As for the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, the pay was really good, and work in Britain was scarce.

        2. My great-grandad volunteered for service in Southern Russia against the Reds after the end of the war, during which he’d spent 3 years as a machine gunner on the Western Front.

          Unfortunately I can’t work out why…he wasn’t very political and he had some good stories about getting out of front duty all the time (and he certainly had no decorations or anything like that after 3 years). I suspect the combination of extra money (there was a bounty for volunteers), not wanting to go home to factory drudgery and perhaps a few mates volunteering did it. Motivations have always been so much more insanely complicated than popular history makes out.

  19. It seems to me that the communications trenches would be equally useful to the attacker and defender. The defenders could use them to retreat more easily once the front trenches were taken, and could use them to launch counter-attacks. However, the attackers could also use them to attack the positions further back. Is there some reason why they were less useful for the attacker than the defender?

      1. That, and I think there were only communications trenches from the second line? So you have no-man’s land, first trench, another stretch of ground attackers would have to get over, second trench with communications trenches back to the rear. So after the first trench gets taken, the defenders can rush soldiers to the second trench while the attackers are still getting organized and trying to bring up their artillery to even be able to hit the second trench. Then, counterattack, take first trench back.

    1. Because the communication trenches, if used for attack, force attacking soldiers to move through a narrow space into prepared defenses. One or two machine guns would be sufficient to repel an attack coming only down a communication trench.

    2. I think that it works this way: if a fighting trench (‘lateral’) is held by defenders, then the ‘vertical’ communications trench is usable. If the defenders are forced back into the communication trench, and are conducting a fighting retreat, they could have a machine gun pointing back at the attackers, who are proceeding up a choke point in the face of that machine gun. Even if the defenders are in a panicky retreat, the defenders in the third ‘lateral’ can horribly hurt attackers coming down the communications trench (with a *lot* of friendly fire, I’d imagine).

  20. I don’t particularly like the Wonder Woman movies or the newer conceptions of Wonder Woman. What’s with the shield? The sword? Is she captain America now? Or Xena, the Warrior Princess? Wonder Woman didn’t used to carry weapons besides that magic Lasso of Truth. She’s gotten awfully militant and kick-ass about her campaign for peace, harmony, and women’s niceness.

  21. So why not build long-range artillery with 10, 12, even 15-mile ranges and use them in as close to an en masse emplacement as is possible to target the rail lines in the rear instead of using the artillery to attack the front?

    1. 1. Because that puts your expensive and somewhat fragile heavy artillery in range of enemy counterbattery fire.

      2. Because it’s actually really hard to target said rail lines.

    2. Rail lines are hard to hit, easy to repair. Rail junctions, marshalling yards and other stuff are easier to hit, harder to fix. Mostly they were too far back for even the heavy artillery, but Hindenberg was criticised for not making key rail yards outside Amiens a priority target during the 1918 offensives. Also, you need aerial spotting and correction, photography and good maps and accurate plotting of gun positions. All developed over the course of the war.

    3. It was done. Look up “railroad guns” and you’ll see that both sides used some custom very-heavy artillery or more commonly converted naval guns to operate from carriages that operated from railways.

      The guns were expensive and logistics intensive to operate and did not have high rates of fire. (A battleship with a similar gun would have a higher rate of fire, but it also had magazines, hoists, and power close at hand to facilitate the reloading process. Much more difficult to do on land over horizontal space.) And without spotting the accuracy on target would be uncertain. Plus the potential for counterbattery fire by the enemy’s long range guns if you’re position could be found out and targeted.

      1. Where the trenches were closer to the coast, or to navigable rivers, the British in particular went in for coastal monitors – a wide but shallow draft ship with a cruiser or battleship turret on it for shore bombardment work. That at least gave the long range heavy gun the kind of magazines and support that improved their rate of fire from warships.

        But those big naval guns (even the somewhat smaller cruiser scale ones like the 9.2″) of the era only had barrel lives of 200-500 rounds. And that was with intermittent firing to avoid overheating the gun. If you tried to do a steady barrage with one you’d probably burn it out in maybe half an hour of max rate firing. So if you wanted to lay down a really deep barrage (say 15 miles or so, 30,000 yards, away from the gun) you’d probably need dozens and dozens of these things. And I don’t think they had that many of those heavy long ranged guns on the entire Western Front. Even for the smaller 9.2″ ones you’re talking about the equivalent of almost every such gun in all the Royal Navy’s cruisers.

        And then they’re big and expensive and slow to move. And the shells are heavy and difficult to move in volume, even on railways. Trying to deploy the many thousands of rounds in a few hours of even a short WWI bombardment would probably be more expensive and more logistics problems than actually building enough cruisers to carry them in a naval situation.

        They just didn’t have the technology we’ve got today to get longer range out of smaller cheaper artillery pieces (base bleed reduced drag shells, rocket assisted shells, or even sub-caliber sabot rounds) – so the only way to get the range was to use massive heavy guns. And then they just couldn’t have enough of them to be used in such interdictions.

  22. Another thing: Logistics!
    The amount of supplies needed to sustain an offensive is staggering. All of this stuff comes from rear area depots, and needs to make its way to the front. Sure, you can stockpile in advance, but even getting hot food over shell blasted ground can take time. Got to repair roads, lay narrow gauge railroad tracks, or even duckboard walkways. Meanwhile, your men are going hungry, and scavenging cookies from German corpses (Doughboys did that in the Argonne). This also explains why offensives tended to peter out after a week and a half or so. Supply shortages. The British even signed up over 100,000 Chinese to work in supply, and the Americans had to create an entire Services of Supply.
    There’s a good book by a British staff officer called Behind the Lines: An Account of Administrative Staffwork in the British Army 1914-1918. The author, Colonel Nicholson, makes it clear that even by the last weeks of the war, these problems were not completely overcome. Nicholson speaks of focusing all his interest on a giant map. In the beginning, depots were 30-40 miles in the rear, but as the battle progressed, “The map gradually became more and more attenuated as we advanced…I spent many hours calculating the number of lorries I could raise… planning roads and traffic circuits, watching the light railway gradually move forward and the repairs to the broad gauge. All my attention turned on the ammunition supply, the food supply, and roads–and all my time was completely occupied. The number of complications in such a problem is inconceivable.” Nicholson characterized the so-called “Advance to Victory” of the last weeks as “… the most cumbrous steam-roller affair it is possible to conceive.” (Nicholson 213-15) During this period, Nicholson was quartermaster for XIII Corps. Imagine how much more complicated it was at Army level and above!

    1. And meanwhile a defender is retreating back along intact and well-known roads and railroads, moving towards their supply depots. Their field telephone/telegraph network is intact…

      1. It’s a great book! Picked it up when I wrote a paper for the 2019 Missouri Valley History Conference on AEF logistics.

  23. There is a bit of irony to the Wonder Woman scene, because it essentially reverses the conditions of World War One. No amount of fire power the Germans could possibly levy would break her charge. It is weird though that the scene portrays this as an uncomplicated good, as we are essentially seeing the defenseless massacre of an inferior force by a superior one. The Germans are helpless here. They have no weapon capable of harming our protagonist. This probably wasn’t intended, but the film makers seem to have a very high opinion of German morale, as they don’t just break and run after WW deflects a mortar shell. What exactly do they think their rifles are going to do?
    Not sure if our heroine is actually capable of slaughtering every single German soldier in the trenches by herself – she very well might be – but at any rate her attack leaves a staggering death toll behind, both for the British and Germans.

  24. I may run a B-side addendum to these posts on why I think Cadorna deserves this unique dishonor, especially given how stiff the competition in WWI is for terrible generalship.

    I am here for that. 😀

  25. Wonder if there’s any way the stalemate at the eastern front could have been avoided? For example if someone had achieved a large victory before either side could dig in.

    1. By winning the early war of maneuver quickly and decisively.

      Those trenches and artillery emplacements took some time to set up, and troops took some time to distribute along the whole front. There was, in fact, an entire period in 1914 called the “Race to the Sea” where each side tried to go north fast enough to outflank the other. In the event they ran out of land (hence “to the Sea”) before they could manage it.

      And even then, that may have just moved the eventual stalemate line a few hundred km east.

  26. Wonder how tanks changed this equation? I guess they helped maintain momentum and in the race to the parapet. And the male ones carried light artillery meaning they could help bring pieces to the front line, the issue however is they had to be used in mass and they often broke down.

    If the 1919 operation had gone underway the british army likely could have gotten better experience with tanks, could’ve improved british tank doctrine.

    1. The second part- the momentum- was critical. A pure infantry-artillery force could, as noted, generally take the enemy front trenches. What tanks could do was cross the front trenches, while carrying heavy weapons in a condition fit to be used on short notice, and bring heavy direct firepower to bear on the enemy’s second and third lines of trenches too.

      Furthermore, the tanks wouldn’t get tired lugging gigantic backpacks over craters in no mans’ land. Even with breakdowns, they would still be in reasonably good condition to fight after advancing through the first several hundred meters of terrain.

      This meant that your attack force could take a much deeper initial bite out of the enemy before their offensive bogged down from exhaustion, and before enemy counterattacks could start trying to push you back.

      1. “The tanks, which were faster than hitherto, had surprised Divisional Staffs in their headquarters and torn up the telephone lines which communicated with the battle front. The Higher Command-posts were thus isolated, and orders could not reach the front line… On this August 8th our order to counter-attack could no longer be carried out. We had not the men, and more particularly the guns, to prepare such an attack, for most of the batteries had been lost on the part of the front which was broken through.” – Paul von Hindenburg, on the breakthrough at Amiens

  27. I am genuinely curious about one thing concerning morale:
    We assume that soldiers hated staying in the trenches because, objectively, it sucked.
    But surely, they knew the alternative to being in the trenches was not sitting at home, but the alternative was storming a beach, open field battle or house-to-house combat. Do we have any evidence about what the soldiers thought of these different options? (My personal guess is that the mountain front between Italy and Austria was relatively popular, but that’s just a guess.)

      1. Haha, oh yes, that was a real cozy front.

        I guess Cadorna is a great name for places, streets, schools and parks because there are three of them: the Risorgimento general, the WW1 field marshal and the WW2 partisan general.
        And thus, everyone can decide for themselves whom the street is named after. 🙂

        1. The problem here is that street plaques usually have the full name, or at least enough initials to make it explicit which one it is, and the ones I know are named after Luigi.

    1. The Alpine front was extremely dangerous – it was harder to dig trenches, and when high explosive hit the exposed bedrock it tended to spall off shards of rock as fragments instead of absorbing the energy nicely like soil. (You see this in the numbers for artillery casualties per round fired – substantially higher in the Alps than in Flanders.)

      Plus the whole twelve-battles-over-the-same-place thing.

      1. There were 2 alpine fronts. 1 was the Corso, the main Italian front with Slovenia. That combined horrible terrain with massive numbers to make for a truly horrific campaign.
        There was a separate front in the actual Alps, which man for man was even worse (lots of avalanches, frost bite, rock splinters etc) but which was so inaccessible it simply couldn’t manned in the same numbers, which kept casualties lower than in the Corso

  28. What if anything was different during operation Michael? It seems with Hutier and Bruchmüller the Germans figured something out or was it just more of the same but applied at the right points such that the allies needed a while before they could get their reserves and counter attack?

    1. A number of books explain the German tactical innovations: very short bombardments so the enemy doesn’t know an attack is coming, attacks on a narrow front, and small corps of storm troopers charged with penetrating the trench lines and seizing key objectives in the rear. These methods rely on creating such confusion that the enemy retreats on a broad front, rather than pinching off the attack and isolating and destroying the attackers.

    2. There were many changes on both sides between 1914 & 1918. Tl;dr 1914 is more like 1870 & 1917-18 is more like 1939. For longer explanations see two books by Bruce I. Gudmundsson, ‘On Artillery’ & ‘Stormtrooper Tactics’.

  29. If you know (as a British soldier) that you won’t reach Berlin once you overcome the next trench or if you know (as a German soldier) that you won’t make it to the channel if you overcome the next trench, the logical solution is to go home. Especially as none of them defended their homeland. (It’s a different story for the Belgium and French soldiers, admittedly.)
    For me, the deserters are the real heroes. If only there had been more of them…

  30. All I can offer as a contribution to this discussion is a wodge of quotations from C.S. Lewis, describing his war experiences in his biography. He goes to France as a junior office of 19 and arrives back in England just short of his 21st birthday.

    “I passed through the ordinary course of training (a mild affair in those days compared with that of the recent war) and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry, the old XIIIth Foot. I arrived in the front line trenches on my nineteenth birthday (November 1917), saw most of my service in the villages before Arras – Fampoux and Monchy – and was wounded at Mt. Bernenchon, near Lillers, in April 1918.

    …Some time in the middle of that winter I had the good luck to fall sick with what the troops called “trench fever” and the doctors P.U.O. (Pyrexia, unknown origin) and was sent for a wholly delightful three weeks to hospital at Le Tréport. …Now, as an alternative to the trenches, a bed and a book were “very heaven”. The hospital was a converted hotel and we were two in a room. My first week was marred by the fact that one of the night nurses was conducting a furious love affair with my room-mate. I had too high a temperature to be embarrassed, but the human whisper is a very tedious and unmusical noise; especially at night. After that my fortune mended. The amorous man was sent elsewhere and replaced by a musical misogynist from Yorkshire, who on our second morning together said to me, “Eh, lad, if we make beds ourselves dom b—-s [damn bitches] won’t stay in room so long” (or words to that effect). Accordingly, we made our own beds every day, and every day when the two V.A.D.’s looked in they said, “Oh, they’ve made their beds! Aren’t these two good?” and rewarded us with their brightest smiles. I think they attributed our action to gallantry.

    …I met one Johnson (on whom be peace) who would have been a lifelong friend if he had not been killed. He was, like me, already a scholar of an Oxford college (Queen’s) who hoped to take up his scholarship after the war, but a few years my senior and at that time in command of a company.
    …You will have divined that ours was a very nice battalion; a minority of good regulars ruling a pleasantly mixed population of promoted rankers (West Country farmers, these), barristers, and university men. You could get as good talk there as anywhere. Perhaps the best of us all was our butt, Wallie. Wallie was a farmer, a Roman Catholic, a passionate soldier (the only man I met who really longed for fighting) and gullible to any degree by the rawest subaltern. The technique was to criticise the Yeomanry. Poor Wallie knew that it was the bravest, the most efficient, the hardest and cleanest corps that ever sat on horses. He knew all that inside, having learned it from an uncle in the Yeomanry when he was a child. But he could not get it out. He stammered and contradicted himself and always came at last to his trump card: “I wish my Uncle Ben was here to talk to you. Uncle Ben’d talk to you. He’d tell you.” Mortals must not judge; but I doubt whether any man fought in France who was more likely to go straight to Heaven if he were killed. I would have been better employed cleaning his boots than laughing at him. I may add that I did not enjoy the short time I spent in the company he commanded. Wallie had a genuine passion for killing Germans and a complete disregard of his own or anyone else’s safety. He was always striking out bright ideas at which the hair of us subalterns stood on end. Luckily he could be very easily dissuaded by any plausible argument that occurred to us. Such was his valour and innocence that he never for a moment suspected us of any but a military motive. He could never grasp the neighbourly principles which, by the tacit agreement of the troops, were held to govern trench-warfare, and to which I was introduced at once by my sergeant. I had suggested “pooping” a rifle grenade into a German post where we had seen heads moving. “Just as ‘ee like, zir,” said the sergeant, scratching his head, “but once ‘ee start doing that kind of thing, ‘ee’ll get zummit back, zee?”

  31. “The war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall here say little about it. Until the great German attack came in the Spring we had a pretty quiet time. Even then they attacked not us but the Canadians on our right, merely “keeping us quiet” by pouring shells into our line about three a minute all day. I think it was that day I noticed how a greater terror overcomes a less: a mouse that I met (and a poor shivering mouse it was, as I was a poor shivering man) made no attempt to run from me. Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother. I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. I was a futile officer (they gave commissions too easily then), a puppet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful, became to me almost like a father. But for the rest, the war–the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet–all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard–so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peace-time poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

    The rest of my war experiences have little to do with this story. How I “took” about sixty prisoners – that is, discovered to my great relief that the crowd of field-grey figures who suddenly appeared from nowhere, all had their hands up-is not worth telling, save as a joke. Did not Falstaff “take” Sir Colville of the Dale? Nor does it concern the reader to know how I got a sound “Blighty” from an English shell … Two things stand out. One is the moment, just after I had been hit, when I found (or thought I found) that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death. I felt no fear and certainly no courage. It did not seem to be an occasion for either. The proposition “Here is a man dying” stood before my mind as dry, as factual, as unemotional as something in a text-book.

    …I returned to Oxford–“demobbed”–in January 1919″

  32. WW1 is where my interest in warfare begins, because it is where the introduction of new technology challenges the ability of the armies to wage war in the old ways.

    The misconceptions of WW1, popularized in the incredibly funny Black Adder Goes Forth, are reinforced by the shear appalling awfulness of coping with what actually happened versus the visceral emotional horror that overwhelms a rationale response.

    Fight and flight triggered by reading the events leads down the path of Thought-Action-Fusion that overwhelms thought processes, leaving the strongest emotions of fear, horror, and disgust.

    Hence, the myths of WW1 are perpetrated, like all the other myths that humanity creates, all part and parcel of the of the evolutionary process that is ill adapted to the civilization humans created.

  33. I loved the Young Indiana Jones series when I was a kid, and their episode on the trenches ( is, on rewatching, surprisingly faithful to the dynamics that you’re talking about. Though the role of long-range artillery remains woefully underemphasized (and the show speedruns through all the usual tropes about trench life and gas attacks as well – though they do cycle in and out of the trenches just in time to meet some war poets!) Indy and friends put on display the method of successful attack under MG fire (small group advances, covering fire, plenty of grenades) and the horrible slaughter that the front-line defenders were subjected to. Further, unusually for ‘popular’ media, the attack-counterattack dynamic is in full display; indy in fact ends up captured when his company is destroyed by a german counterattack.

  34. In terms of combat losses, World War I inflicted a little fewer proportionately than the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (although in a much shorter time), and many fewer civilian losses. British mobilisation levels were the same or less (see Andress’ The Savage Storm). Aside from the technological changes, I wonder if a lot of the cultural change in Britain and France came from the contrast with civilian society and the shock to elites who had never previously experienced anything like it. These were militaristic but not militarised societies – uniforms, bands and parades everywhere but fighting always remote and the business of a small coterie of professionals. They went from lawn tennis into the trenches and were appalled. The lower classes much less so, because it really was very little different from life in the mines or the boiler factory – a bit more danger, but better food.

    1. I think you are making some highly dubious assumptions about what people in 1914 expected from a war. For a start, the great majority of men in France and Germany could expect to be drafted when they were eighteen, and be recalled to the army for exercises in later life. And they would serve as privates, because officers were long-service professionals. Note that things like the Franco-Prussian war were less distant than Vietnam is now, and had a vastly greater impact at the time.

      So far as I can tell, no one who wrote his memoirs claimed to be especially shocked or surprised by it all. C. S. Lewis, who is quoted up above, went to the war straight from school. IIRC he thought: “Well, this is it. This is what Homer wrote about. This is war.” If anything, he claimed to find the war less stressful than his public-school education: at least he didn’t have to pretend to care about an endless series of school sporting events and suchlike. Bernard Adams didn’t claim to be especially shocked either. Or Ernst Jünger. Or Herbert W McBride.

      I think people have some idea they are superior and more understanding than the people of 1914. Well maybe, but their ratio of psychiatric to physical casualties was a lot lower than ours in the wars of a century later. So if anyone is shocked and surprised by the realities of warfare, it would seem to be us.

      1. It wasn’t just not having to care. It was that everyone admitted that it was a horrible situation that everyone wished were over.

        1. Fair enough. My point was just that CS Lewis did not seem to be especially shocked by the Western Front. Indeed, insofar as his ideas about warfare came from Homer, they might have been a lot better preparation than those of people today who get their ideas from Wonder Woman.

      2. I was thinking more of the war poets and novelists – Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Junger – who did so much to shape perceptions of the war in the 20s and 30s. They would not have had so much impact if they had not reflected a widespread view.

        1. I should think the success of a book of poetry tells you most about the tastes of the poetry-buying classes, which must have been a pretty small minority in the UK.

          I’ve never read Graves, but Junger was apparently considered a pro-War author by the Nazis, and I can sort of see why. He certainly does not read to me like a man who was disillusioned by the war.

    2. I’m not convinced about “British mobilisation levels were the same or less”. The peak size of the British army in the Napoleonic wars was 330,000, out of a population of 12.6 million for Great Britain. That compares to 4 million in 1918, from 41 million.

  35. This is a decent take on the depiction of WWI in media (in which attacking the trench is the war-defining problem) as compared to the reality (in which beating the counterattack is the war-defining problem). But it could be better!

    I think this could really do with adding the field telephone to the list of key technologies (if you want to keep the list short, it could perhaps even replace the machine gun) and discussing communication technologies in terms of how “friction” actually worked in WWI. You talk generically about friction, but the degradation of command and control as an attack moved forward (away from prepared telephone lines, and complicating other communication options) is a really good practical example. It’s also one in which the specific state-of-the-art command and control technology of the day (field telephones, dependent on laying physical cable) really played a major role in hindering the ability to fight off the inevitable counterattack, since enormous problems in command and control are disproportionately imposed on the side that has just advanced, and the more initially successful the attack, the bigger the problem becomes. The side that has not advanced is organizing their counterattack within their prepared defenses in depth, so they can quickly communicate by phone using prelaid land lines.

    If a spent attacking force is trying to call up the artillery they need to break up a counterattack using runners, or signal flags, or freakin’ pigeons (or, even if they are lucky enough to have thorough air coverage and spotters, relying on the human eyeball in the planes and having to wait for those planes to fly back, land, and report)… and meanwhile in the other side’s command bunker, some staff officer can talk to the artillery by picking up the phone… that is a huge difference, and readers can immediately appreciate its significance once it’s pointed out. It also throws WWI into sharp contrast with WWII, where the portable radio did so much to change things.

    Three key technologies of WWI – artillery-delivered firepower, field telephone, railroad. Augmented by three key technologies of WWII – aircraft-delivered firepower, portable radio, and (large-scale military deployment of) the internal combustion engine.

  36. Y’know, for all their fanboyism over Clausewitz (drink!), German commanders sure seem to be utterly unable to understand what he wrote about. Heck, the more I read about German armies and officiers, the more I get the impression Moltke the *Elder* was the closest one to get Clausewitz (at the same time, he was spoiled with a Bismarck to man the political front).

  37. “Reaching and clearly the immediate enemy trench line” – clear?
    “though heavy shells designed to penetrate the ground with large high-explosive payloads could heavy” – heave?

    Hmm. “If your first notion of trench warfare is ‘you’ll win if you mange to reach the enemy trenches’, then congrats, you’re thinking exactly like a WWI general”. That’s good, I might use it.

  38. Very late to the party here, but I’d be interested in a more detailed economic calculus of offensive vs. defensive strategies. In particular a casualty ratio of 7:8 or even 3:4 favoring the attacker after a battle with heavy shelling would probably be a net economic loss for the attacker. A back-of-the envelope guess is that the cost of the artillery shells in a battle like Verdun is comparable (I would even guess higher) than the cost of training and equipping the manpower lost, setting up the trenches, etc. (This would be especially true in Germany, where they had nitrogen-bottlenecked gunpowder production early in the war.) If this is true, any result less than a definitive advance by the attacker is abysmal from an economic standpoint, and a straight war of attrition (with counterattacks when viable) seems by far the most sensible long-term strategy, maybe barring a situation where one side has more than twice as many resources (like the allies after America joined) and thus can take big economic losses for territorial gains. It’s possible that my back-of-the envelope calculus is wrong here, since manpower costs are hard to quantify, but it seems to me that this part of the analysis is missing (maybe it will be included in a later installment).

    1. In the end, it was morale and men, not shells, which various states began to run out of, so I think the impact of the manpower component is greater than the loss of shells. It takes mere minutes for a factory to turn out a shell but it takes 18 years to produce a soldier from scratch.

  39. Thank you. This was a very succinct and well thought-out presentation. But, as I read it, I don’t think it made any new or different points than Liddell Hart made when I read his stuff over half a century ago. I could be wrong, as the memory is not as good as it once was. It’s hardly a criticism or an accusation of plagiarism when somebody makes again excellent points already made almost a century ago by others. Classicists would all be in jail for plagiarism if it was at all wrong to restate eternal verities. It just causes me to wonder — do people no longer read Liddell Hart? There were of course others who came to see things just after WWI pretty much as you portray things, Liddell Hart just wrote popular books, especially after WWII, that incorporated the insights gained in WWI. I guess you could restate my puzzlement here as wondering how what I thought was the conventional wisdom about WWI and trench warfare became something that needed a new generation of explainers such as yourself.

    1. That’s the conventional wisdom among academics and military theorists, and has been for about a century.

      This blog is mostly targeted at a lay audience, familiar with popular culture but not with (the formal study of) history.

  40. On re-read, just a fun physical science analogy:

    …they were actually tried and failed either due to the dynamics (or perhaps, more truthfully, the statics) of trench warfare or because they proved impossible implement from a morale-and-politics perspective…

    In physical systems we call this not a “static” system, but a system in “dynamic equilibrium”. Individual components of the system are in motion, but all of that motion adds up to a system that stays the same. Almost all long-lived physical systems are in dynamic equilibrium, not purely static.

  41. Two questions:

    1. What does a “strategy of attrition” translate into in lower-level actions? Counterattack to regain the lines you lose but don’t try to advance past that?

    2. Can’t the defender place their artillery such that it’s out of range of the attacker’s artillery but still in range of the field that the attacker has to cross to get to the next trench, and wouldn’t that tilt the balance in favor of the defender?

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